Yoga For Digestive Health

Our gut health, although constantly talked about, can be one of the hardest things to manage. So, how does yoga, an ancient practice that will have you breathe, twist, and bend, play into this?

Let me ask you this: how does a relaxing massage feel after a very stressful and busy day? Because that’s what yoga can do for the internal organs in the abdomen—a gentle massage that moves things along (quite literally), promoting digestion and a good mood.

Digestion Explained

Digestion is the process through which we convert the food we eat into nutrients our body can use to sustain itself. Digestion begins the moment you take your first bite. Yes, this means that even the act of chewing has a pretty big impact on your stomach. 


Chewing, in particular, stimulates the cells lining the stomach walls to produce digestive fluids (hydrochloric acid). Without these juices, your food would just sit there, unprocessed, instead of being broken down into the nutrients that nourish your body. 

Now, you may start to piece things together as to why some yogic principles and mindfulness practices focus on mindful eating, which includes intentional chewing. It’s a way to ensure your body truly prepares for the food that it’s about to receive, which may even affect your blood glucose levels and the gut microbiota in the small intestine. In other words, chewing can affect your energy levels after eating, how effectively your food is digested, and how long it stays in the stomach.

Following yogic philosophies may teach you to be more mindful about chewing food and to take your time when eating, which in turn will positively affect your digestion.




Once the food is chewed and broken down into pieces, the stomach takes over. Here, a potent mix of enzymes and even more acid turns the food into a substance called chyme. This is a very important aspect of digestion as proteins from the food are broken down into amino acids—molecules that our body needs to function. 

But, this is also the part of digestion where it’s better to be still and let our body do its thing. The stomach is like a balloon filled with highly acidic fluid that breaks the food. Applying pressure to it through intensive movements could irritate the stomach. If you engage in vigorous physical activity right after eating, you may feel some discomfort, cramping, or even pain.

This includes some yoga styles such as power yoga or dynamic vinyasa styles, but also any practice that includes twists, backbends, and inversions—emphasis on the inversions! People suffering from GERD should be particularly careful.

Food usually stays in the stomach for 40 minutes to 2 hours (depending on the type and quantity of food), which is also when your body directs all the blood supply and energy into your digestive tract. That’s why it’s common to hear suggestions to wait at least 30 minutes or even 1 or 2 hours after a big meal before exercising. It’s also why you might feel tired and sluggish during this time.

Avoid doing yoga, especially dynamic styles, or any exercise for that matter, immediately after eating, particularly if you notice it bothers you. Once the food is in the small intestine (at least most of it), it’s a different story!

Small Intestine

Next, the pre-processed food goes into the small intestine, where nutrient absorption takes place.

Fun fact: In adults, the small intestine is around 20 feet long! It’s an incredibly active and dynamic organ.


The small intestine is also where you get the vitamins, minerals, and energy from the food. Because of this, food stays here between 2 to 6 hours! It’s a very laborious process that depends on motility (peristalsis). Peristalsis is what scientists call the coordinated, rhythmic contractions of the smooth muscle in the intestinal wall that create a gentle wave that pushes food contents forward, while also maximizing contact with the absorptive surfaces. 

Here, motility is really beneficial. Adding gentle physical movements, like in many yoga styles, can aid this process by helping the small intestine maximize contact with the nutrients and push them forward. Many yoga poses, especially those involving twists and mild compressions of the abdomen, can act like a gentle massage for the internal organs. For instance, asanas such as ardha matsyendrasana (half lord of the fishes pose) or parivrtta utkatasana (revolved chair pose) can encourage the motility of the small intestine and promote peristalsis.

Plus, yoga reduces stress, which is often a culprit in digestive issues. When the body is stressed, it can interfere with the process of peristalsis, leading to slower digestion or even painful spasms. Therefore, yoga also helps in a more indirect way.

Ending a yoga session with a soothing meditation is the cherry on top that adds another layer of protection for your gut by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest!).


The large intestine takes over to deal with what's left: extracting water and forming waste. It’s the body's recycling center, making sure nothing goes to waste—literally. It extracts water back into the body and turns the food waste from a liquid into a solid form.

Food can stay in the colon for about 12 to 48 hours, varying greatly depending on factors like diet, hydration, and overall gut health. This means that almost every time we exercise, we have content in our colon, and yoga can help maintain a healthy and efficient colon.

Asanas like pavanamuktasana (wind-relieving pose—I mean…the name is right on the nose!) and baddha konasana (butterfly pose) are particularly good for massaging the abdomen and promoting the elimination process in the colon—in other words, alleviating constipation.

In addition to this, the twisting motions in poses such as marichyasana (seated twist) can also provide a sort of internal massage that stimulates the colon.



How Can Yoga Help Specific Digestive Issues?

Many people expand the term "digestive issues" to include a wide range of issues that come from the GI tract—think gas, bloating, discomfort, and variations in stool type and frequency.

While not necessarily caused by the process of breaking down food and turning it into nutrients, these issues are still signals from your body that something in the system might need attention.

What could be going on? Your body is very clever—it has created a network of nerves and biochemical signals that connect your digestive system with your brain. It’s called the gut-brain axis and allows your gut and brain to send messages to each other.

When you're stressed, whether it's from mental or physical strain, this communication can result in physical symptoms. Your gut is particularly sensitive to these stress signals, and it can respond with stomach aches, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, or even changes in your appetite and digestion.

So, what does science have to say about yoga for dealing with specific digestive issues?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional gastrointestinal disorder—meaning that it’s characterized by changes in how the gut functions. Symptoms may include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.

While much is still unknown about the condition, scientists believe that IBS might be caused by an overactive sympathetic nervous system, which is the system that puts you in high alert, such as when you’re stressed.

Since yoga is one of the best anti-stress remedies, it comes as no surprise that many studies have actually found yoga to be an effective therapy for people suffering from IBS. A systematic review of all the available literature concluded that yoga seems to be a feasible and safe adjunctive treatment for people with IBS, although this issue would benefit from more research.

Other studies have also come to favorable conclusions. It seems that doing yoga daily (physical postures, pranayama, and meditation), following a low-inflammatory diet and walking, can significantly reduce IBS symptoms.



Inflammatory Bowel Diseases

Inflammatory bowel diseases are a cluster of conditions that cause inflammation, chronic swelling of the intestines, or even particle destruction of the intestinal wall. Such conditions include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

IBD is an excruciating condition and chronic inflammation can lead to damage to the GI tract. Because of this, even though some studies have found yoga to be an effective support for symptom management, it should not be used as a replacement for traditional therapies. Always consult your healthcare provider before you start with a new yoga regimen.

From the available research, yoga has been found to:

GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD, is a condition where stomach acids frequently flow back into the esophagus, causing irritation and symptoms like heartburn, acid regurgitation, and sometimes difficulty swallowing. This backflow, or reflux, happens when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES)—a muscle acting as a valve between the esophagus and stomach—does not function properly.

If you remember from the section on the stomach, this is where food spends anywhere from 40 minutes up to two hours, after a big meal—starting immediately after we swallow our first bite. This is also the time when we need to rest. Too much movement, especially going upside down like in many yoga poses, could create additional pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, which may worsen GERD symptoms.

Therefore, if you suffer from GERD be very mindful not to eat within an hour before your yoga session. Also, avoid yoga styles focused on inversions or poses that involve bending over if you find that it is uncomfortable for you. You can also ask your teacher to help you modify each asana so that it works for you.

Unlike the asana practice, pranayama and meditative practices are two aspects of yoga most beneficial for GERD patients. Some initial scientific evidence suggests that the regular practice of kapalbhati (skull shining breath) and agnisar kriya (abdominal churning) could lessen severe GERD symptoms.



Constipation & Bloating

I’m quite confident that every one of you reading this article has at some point in your life experienced constipation or bloating, probably both at the same time. For many, these conditions are a daily struggle.

Dietary fibres, adequate hydration, and regular physical activity are traditional recommendations for preventing and managing constipation and bloating. Yoga, as a form of exercise, can be particularly effective, as certain poses can stimulate the movement of contents through the digestive tract and help release trapped gas, which can alleviate bloating.

As mentioned when we talked about the colon, poses that involve twists and gentle compressions of the abdomen can stimulate the intestines and help improve bowel regularity.

And, if you’re ready to roll out the mat and get into action, head over to our article on the best yoga poses and classes for digestion.

A Word of Caution

Everyone's body is unique, especially when dealing with sensitive digestive issues. While yoga is often praised for its benefits, like improving digestion and alleviating discomfort, it’s crucial to listen to your body and not push it beyond its limits.

If you experience discomfort or pain while practicing yoga, take it as a clear signal to back off. The pain could mean that your body is not ready for certain movements or that an underlying issue needs to be addressed. Forcing yourself into yoga poses when experiencing pain can do more harm than good, possibly exacerbating existing conditions.

Always consult a healthcare provider or a qualified yoga therapist who can recommend specific poses that are safe and beneficial for your condition. Remember, the goal of yoga is to support your body's healing and not to impose further stress on it.

Improving the Gut-Brain Connection

The main culprit for many digestive issues, and a factor that often exacerbates them when not the primary cause, is the gut-brain axis. This vital link, going mostly through the vagus nerve, creates a bidirectional communication network between the enteric (gut) and central nervous system. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps control digestion and various metabolic processes.

Fun Fact: Did you know that most of the "happy hormone," serotonin, is produced in the gut? About 90% of your body's serotonin, which influences both mood and gastrointestinal activity, is made in your digestive tract. This really puts things into perspective on just how deeply interconnected your emotional and digestive health can be. To learn more, check out this cool study on how the gut microbiome affects your mood and mental health.

In a nutshell, all of this means one thing: Your mood and mental health heavily depend on how healthy your gut is. 



The Role of the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Yoga’s role here largely stems from its ability to improve the function of the parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the "rest and digest" system. By engaging in yoga, you activate and strengthen the parasympathetic response, which uses these direct lines of communication to tell the gut to continue with its normal function.

If your sympathetic nervous system (the high-alert “we’re in danger” system ie. stress and anxiety) is active, it sends a message to your gut to stop or slow down because the body is dealing with more pressing issues at the moment (example: pumping more blood to your fast-beating heart, sweaty palms, or flushed face).

Ever heard of or used the expressions: butterflies in my stomach (excitement); pit in my stomach (dread); hot belly (anger); gut feeling (intuition); gut-wrenching (emotional pain or agony)? Our everyday language shows how much we feel the emotional responses of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems in our gut.

Yoga practices, including deep breathing techniques, soothing asanas, gentle stretching, and mindfulness meditation, help reduce stress and allow the parasympathetic nervous system to take a more dominant role. Regular calming yoga practices, even five minutes daily, can significantly help the digestive system by reducing stress and allowing for optimal absorption of nutrients. 

Setting the Tone for Digestive Health with Yoga

Starting your morning with yoga can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which we just established is very, very good for your digestive health.

This system helps your body to absorb nutrients better and manage energy effectively. By engaging in a morning yoga routine, you’ll be essentially priming your digestive system to handle the day's nutritional intake more efficiently. 

And, your routine can also serve as the first line of defence against the stresses the day brings.

How Stress Affects Digestion

When you're stressed, your body thinks you're under threat—like fleeing from a tiger. In response, it activates the “fight or flight” mode (sympathetic nervous system), which is all about survival.

This response shuts down non-essential functions, including digestion. The body diverts blood away from the digestive organs and toward the muscles and limbs, which decreases enzyme production and muscle contractions in the gut. 

If this state is prolonged, it can lead to decreased nutrient absorption or even halt digestion altogether. Therefore, chronic stress translates to chronic digestive issues brought on by disturbances in the digestion process. And the downward spiral goes on, as these digestive issues make it harder for your body to receive the nourishment it needs, regardless of how healthy your diet is, which can lead to many other health issues.

Let Yoga Help You Rest and Digest

Yoga, with its meditations and deep breathing techniques, is a powerful antidote to stress, while the gentle asana practices provide a relaxing massage to the abdomen’s internal organs.

Maintaining a regular yoga practice will help your body switch back to the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system more efficiently after all the excitement the day brings. This is how you can kick-start digestion again, making sure you remain nourished and with high energy!


Existing Comments

June 10, 2024

Thanks for sharing this wonderful information. It's really amazing and engaging.

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